Now that some unionist politicians are to “listen to and engage with those from the Gaelic Irish background, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don’t want to use it as a political weapon”, perhaps they might like to reflect on some historical facts:
The language of the Gael was not a particular problem some 400 years ago when Presbyterians fled famine and persecution in Scotland and arrived in Ireland.
In fact as the Presbyterian Church developed it was compulsory for ministers in the south and west of Ireland to be able to preach fluently in Irish.
The first book printed in the Irish language did not appear until 1567. The Scottish reformer John Knox’s “Book of Common Order” was published in Edinburgh in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. In their written forms they were essentially the same language at that time.
Many Protestants in the past had no difficulty with the Language of the Gael. Presbyterians in the past made a significant contribution to the advancement, preservation and revival of the Irish language.
The Rev William Neilson, Presbyterian minister of Dundalk, was skilled in various languages, and in 1808 he produced the work for which he is remembered, An Introduction to the Irish Language, (Neilson’s Grammar), and the next year an Irish spelling book.
Presbyterian Robert Shipboy McAdam, a collector of Irish literature and advocate of the Irish language gives his name to Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on the Falls Road.
Orangemen in the past had no problem with the Irish language. Many of you readers may recall ‘Ireland’s Heritage’ LOL No.1303, which existed in No.3 District within Belfast County from 1970 to 1982, carriying a banner with the Gaelic inscription ‘Oidhreacht Éireann’.
Your readers, however, may not recall the County Grand Master of Belfast Orangemen from 1885 to 1898, the Rev. Dr Richard Routledge Kane. Dr Kane was not only a great advocate of the Irish language but a patron of the Belfast Gaelic League, founded in 1895.
It is said that he signed the minutes of lodge meetings in Irish. According to James Winder Good in Ulster & Ireland, he said, ‘My Orangeism does not make me less proud to be an O’Cahan.’
The other side of the coin however requires to be considered. When Eamon de Valera made learning the Irish language compulsory in the Republic, it is reported that James Dillon TD accused him of making the Nation illiterate in two languages.
In the past Sinn Fein politicians have not only made the issue of the Irish language a ‘political football’ but some are on record of stating that: ‘Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom’.
Given the connection between Sinn Fein and the IRA who fired lot of bullets into the unionist/Protestant community, this statement is hardly an endearing way of engaging the unionist community with the language, they themselves so often speak badly.
The present situation in the Republic of Ireland, where there is a growing resentment, by both parents and students, at the imposition of Irish as a compulsory language, is worth considering. Are there not important lessons to be learnt by both those who support and those who oppose an Irish Language Act?
In the present political climate, is an Irish Language Act really the best way of promoting and encouraging the learning and use of Irish?
The politicising of the Irish language by republicans has borne bitter fruit within the unionist community, where prejudice has fed on the propaganda which seeks to airbrush the Irish dimension from our history.
• Brian Kennaway is author of The Orange Order: A tradition Betrayed